After proving his loyalty in Afghanistan and elsewhere, CIA agent John Wells, the first Western intelligence officer to penetrate the upper levels of al-Qaeda, is assigned a mission on American soil by bin Laden's chief deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri. On his return to the U.S., Wells, now a devout Muslim (for real), finds his years spent in deep cover have left him conflicted. The agency itself seems wary of him—other than Jennifer Exley, the agency analyst who debriefs Wells (aka Jalal) on his return. The scrutiny intensifies when two bombs go off in L.A., killing 300. Berenson, a New York Times correspondent since 1999 who covered the occupation of Iraq, deftly employs the classic staples of spy fiction in his debut novel—self-serving bureaucrats, a beautiful co-worker love interest and an on-the-run hero suspected of being a traitor—then mixes in current terror tropes: car bombs, smuggled nuclear material, and bio-weapons. There's too much introspection from friend and foe alike, but mounting suspense, a believable scenario and a final twist add up to a compelling tale of frightening possibilities. It's not for the squeamish, though: the torture sequences and bombing descriptions are graphic and chillingly real. (Apr. 25)
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Starred Review Two years after U.S. secret agent John Wells infiltrates al-Qaeda, the events of 9/11 call into question his usefulness, if not his loyalty, but he keeps his cover and bides his time, burrowing closer to Osama while sincerely converting to the one true faith of Islam as the years slip by. When al-Zawahiri sends him home at last, it is to serve some undetermined role in a major, multiphase offensive cleverly designed to strike terror in the American heart by unleashing conventional, biological, and nuclear attacks from coast to coast. Berenson works against the inherent sensationalism of his story with a diversity of viewpoints and deft character sketches that avoid oversimplifying the complex beliefs and strategies of his combatants. The plotting is superlative, baffling readers and characters alike as the mastermind behind al-Qaeda's sleeper network wages covert war against a vigilant and resourceful enemy. As with Thomas Harris' Black Sunday (1975) or Joseph Finder's Zero Hour (1996), one could hardly ask for a more skillful, timely, and well-rounded translation of our worst fears into satisfying thrills; a sure bet for fans of Jack Higgins and Vince Flynn. David Wright
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